When President Obama announced the death of Osama Bin Laden, he repeatedly invoked the concept of justice. As the president himself put it most succinctly, "Justice has been done."
It is impossible to argue that the killing of Osama Bin Laden was not "justifiable," or even "just," and I might even be inclined to accept it as a form of "justice." But to use that term to describe what happened last weekend in Abbottabad, Pakistan, is to invite confusion we cannot as a nation afford.
To describe an act as "justice" is not merely to claim that the act was legitimate; it is to claim that it is legitimate in a particular way. For instance, we say that our legal system dispenses "justice," because when someone is punished, it is done according to a set of prescribed rules and procedures that have their origin in the sovereign will of the people. We actually have a different word for describing when private parties act on their own initiative to punish criminals: vigilantism.
At its core, then, what U.S. forces visited upon Osama Bin Laden was violence. That is frequently what the U.S. armed forces are asked to do, and they do it very, very well. Violence can be a form of justice, and justice occasionally requires acts of violence. But, despite their occasionally close relationship, justice and violence should never be confused, even when violence is undertaken in service of the most just of causes. Osama Bin Laden was himself an accomplished engineer of violence, but no right-thinking person would think he was a source of justice.
Why bother making the distinction? Because we can act according to our principles only if we can think clearly about them, and we can think clearly about them only if we talk clearly about them. And our principles—those worth fighting and dying for—are what separate us from the likes of Osama Bin Laden, not the ability to kill people thousands of miles away.
While it's true that those principles provide us with a huge strategic advantage in the war against extremism, the primary benefit of having principles is one we enjoy ourselves: Adherence to our principles is the way in which our nation—and in particular our national security apparatus—preserves its rationality and humanity while prosecuting an uncertain war against an unseen enemy. Our principles are our way of making sense of the impossibly difficult questions that arise when we join the fight against ideological extremists whose only objective is to kill as many Americans as possible.
Making sense of the messy world through the lens of our principles is no easy task, though. Enemies do not present themselves in clearly defined categories ready for logical, pre-determined responses. We have to take circumstances and opponents as they come. The stakes are high and the pressure is on. Like a high-school math student nearing the end of an exam, there is considerable temptation to skip to the answer without showing one's work.
But skipping to the answer—even if it's as appealing as a terrorist killed or captured—is always a mistake, because it's the work, and not the answer, that separates the president of the United States from the head of a particularly large and well-organized mob. Skipping to the answer—failing to acknowledge the distinctions that separate justice from violence—is the kind of mistake that led to the confused and occasionally disastrous detention and interrogation policies that marked the beginning of America's active participation in this conflict back in the early 2000s. The impulse to justify skipping the work must be guarded against with constant vigilance, precisely because sometimes just getting to the answer is so rewarding. Even today, years after our nation outlawed "enhanced interrogation techniques" (whose claims to legality even before the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 were tenuous at best), there are those who defend them on the ground that they may have helped lead to the killing of Osama Bin Laden.